The Little Falls City Council voted 5-3 June 18 to accept and post a drawing in the public Carnegie Library. The drawing was created by Corey Schilling, a jail inmate at the time he drew it and gave it to the city.
City Attorney Toni Wetzel advised the Council that they were exposing themselves to legal action by hanging it in the library. Why?
A citizen complained that it violated the First Amendment clause that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The drawing shows two hands reaching out to each other. Underneath, this message is written: “With a simple touch, the Lord created Adam, beginning the chain of creation of us all. With a simple touch of your generous hearts, you have begun a chain of positive changes in the hearts, minds and lives of many and those whose lives they touch. With our hearts, we thank you.”
Since two hands reaching out to one another is hardly promoting of religion, the legal question then revolves around four words, “the Lord created Adam,” which refers to the Old Testament book of Genesis.
Except that the wording doesn’t refer to Genesis or anything else.
In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court established a three-part test to determine if a governmental action violates the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.
First, to be permitted, the government action must have a secular purpose. Second, its primary purpose must not be to inhibit or advance religion. Third, there must be no excessive entanglement between government and religion.
Accepting a gift and posting it is not religious, and the primary purpose was not to promote religion but to acknowledge an interesting piece of art with a thoughtful message. As for “excessive entanglement,” the message is about thanking the city for helping create a positive change, not promotion of religion.
The high court has also ruled that posting the Ten Commandments in public schools or a nativity scene in a public building violates the First Amendment. We don’t think the Little Falls drawing rises to the level of either the Ten Commandments or a nativity scene.
We don’t take kindly to the city being sued, but neither do we think accepting and posting this gift reaches the definition of a First Amendment violation. The city does have some rights, too.